November 11 – Call Me Ishmael

Today’s Factismal: Tomorrow morning, the human race harpoons a comet for the very first time.

This is a very special time in human history. We are doing things and going places that we’ve never been before. We’ve got probes exploring Mars and Mercury and a spacecraft that has flown from the Earth to one planet, orbited around it for a while and is now on its way to a second planet! But tomorrow we’ll do something that is truly extraordinary. Tomorrow, the ESA space probe Rosetta will release its lander Philae just above the comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The lander will shoot two harpoons into the comet and use them to pull itself onto the surface of the comet. It will then spend the next few months studying the comet as it rounds the Sun, watching to see how it changes over time.

The comet jdkkjadsbfjkdbf. Philae will land almost in the middle of the "saddle" between the two big chunks. (Image courtesy ESA)

The comet 67/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Philae will land almost in the middle of the “saddle” between the two big chunks.
(Image courtesy ESA)

The ESA will livestream the landing and NASA will also broadcast it. But if just watching us make history isn’t enough for you, then why not help us? Take part in the citizen science effort to map all of Vesta, the asteroid visited by DAWN. All you have to do is look at the really, really cool images of Vesta and circle anything that  you think is interesting! To take part, head over to Asteroid Mappers:

November 10 – Would You Like To Play A Game?

Today’s factismal: The first video game was invented in 1947, 1951, 1958, 1961, or 1977.

Invention is a hard thing to define. Though we may think that we’ll know it when we see it, it is more common that we miss the small changes that build up to create a “new” invention. It happened with the light bulb (invented in 1802, 1841, 1872, and 1879), the laser (invented in 1917, 1953, and 1960), and the video game (invented in 1847, 1951, 1959, and 1977). But unlike the light bulb, which everyone “knows” was invented by Edison, and the laser, which everyone “knows” was invented by Maiman, the video game has no publicly proclaimed father – making it the most honest of the inventions!

The world's first video game (Image courtesy  Riki Manzoli)

The world’s first video game
(Image courtesy Riki Manzoli)

Perhaps the first video game (if we ignore the possible role of the Antikythera mechanism) was the eponymous Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device. This device was nothing more than a modified oscilliscope (the cathode ray) with a button that they player would use to “fire” at a target (made from a piece of cellophane placed over the screen). Originally intended for training bombardiers, it enjoyed a brief life as an amusement device before the more active pinball took its place.

Soon after that came the introduction of a computer to the game, most notably with the release of OXO or Tic-Tac-Toe. Powered by a five-ton research computer with a memory 1/2,000,000th as large as the computer on your desk (ain’t progress great?), the computer would print out each move in a game of tic-tac-toe (or noughts and crosses as the Brits who invented the machine called the game) and won most of the time.

But a five-ton computer a reams of paper don’t exactly make for scintillating game play. And so it took the introduction of the CRT to computers in the late 1950s to give us “Mouse in a maze”, the forerunner of PacMan and all of the other “chase games”. But, unlike its children, in Mouse in a maze, the player constructed the maze and the computer ran the mouse, instead of the other way around.

Or is this the world's first video game? (Image courtesy Stanford Infolab)

Or is this the world’s first video game?
(Image courtesy Stanford Infolab)

It wasn’t until 1977 that video games took on their final incarnation when Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck realized that there were folks who would pay money to play the games that they’d been giving away for free. So they added a coin slot to their version of “Galaxy Game” which pitted two player against each other in an attempt to destroy the other’s spaceship.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Within a few short years, video games would be in every mall in America and parents would be wondering what happened to their children and their spare change. And the games continue to change. Where it used to take a huge console to play a game, now you can carry it in your back pocket. And where games used to cost a quarter, now they run upwards of $50 each (but you get unlimited lives). But perhaps the best change of all in video games is that now you can play them and help scientists at the same time. Over at Citizen Sort,t hey are looking for a few good gamers to help them discover hidden connections in their data. To play, head over to:

Today’s factismal: There are more species of fish than there are species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals combined!

One thing that everyone knows is that 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. But what many don’t realize is that all of that water isn’t empty; instead, it is full of living critters from the microscopic plankton to the huge blue whale (which happens to eat those plankton). And, though most of the critters that live in the ocean are too small to be seen with the naked eye, most of the diversity in the oceans is reserved for their most popular residents: the fish.

Goldfish swimming in a pool (My camera)

Goldfish swimming in a pool
(My camera)

Because the ocean is so large, it offers a huge variety of places where fish can live (ranging from abyssal depths to sunny shallows) and an amazing variety of things that the fish can eat (ranging from yet more plankton to each other). And that variety of options has created a similar variety of species. At last count, there were more than 32,700 known species of fish and about 250 more were being added every year.

A yellow tang looking for algae (My camera)

A yellow tang looking for algae
(My camera)

That variety of fish has in turn led to a singular new website called Fish Base. At this portal into things piscatorial, you can discover everything from the common name of the Carassius auratus (goldfish) to the feeding habits of the yellow tang (they eat algae on reefs). If you are a budding ichthyologist or looking for help on a science fair project or just hoping to discover something new about fish, then this is the site for you! And, as always, they are looking for help from citizen scientists in identifying and describing those new species. So swim on over!

November 7 – Snowbody’s Business

Today’s factismal: Meteorologists have more terms for snow than Eskimos do.

One fact that everyone knows is that Eskimos have lots of words for snow. It only makes sense that they would; after all, every year the Arctic is covered with the stuff for the better part of six months. But what many people don’t know is that meteorologists have even more terms for snow than the Eskimos do!

"Snow on water" (My camera)

“Snow on water”
(My camera)

Of course, that does depend a little on how you define “words related to snow” and “Eskimo” (we’re pretty sure on what folks mean by “meteorologist”). There isn’t one group of Eskimo any more than there is one group of people in Europe. There are at least twenty-six distinct languages spoken by “Eskimos” (that is, indigenous people living in the Arctic Circle); though the languages all share a common ancestor (much as English and German and Afrikaans do), they differ in how many words they have for any given topic including snow.

And then there is the problem of defining words related to snow. Is “snowing” different from “snow”? Is “snowstorm” different from “blizzard”? Fortunately for us, linguists have been arguing over questions like this for the better part of a century. Based on one influential dictionary for the Yup’ik people, many people say that the Eskimos (or at least the Yup’ik) have fifteen distinct words for snow. They include snowflake (qanuk), frost (kaneq), fine snow/rain particles (kanevvluk), drifting snow (natquik), clinging snow (nevluk ‘clinging debris’, nevlugte- ‘have clinging debris’), fallen snow on the ground (aniu), soft, deep fallen snow on the ground (muruaneq), the crust on fallen snow (qetrar), freshly fallen snow on the ground (nutaryuk), snow floating on water (qanisqineq), snow bank (qengaruk), a block of snow (utvak), a snow cornice (navcaq), a blizzard or snowstorm (pirta), and a severe blizzard (cellallir).

The Hubbard glacier (My camera)

The Hubbard glacier
(My camera)

What about meteorologists? They worry about all types of weather, snow included, and have developed a very exacting terminology for snow and ice. Their lexicon includes snow ablation (snow removal by erosion), avalanche (snow rushing downslope in a mass), blizzard (a winter storm with sustained winds in excess of 35 mph that causes drifting and blowing snow and limited visibility), blowing snow (snow that is being blown by the wind and limits visibility), depth hoar (large crystals that form in snowbanks due to strong temperature gradients), diamond dust (tiny snowflakes too small to branch), drifting snow (snow moved around by the wind that doesn’t limit visibility), flurries (light snowfalls for short time periods), freshet (the increase in river flow caused by melting snow and ice), frost (small ice crystals formed on the surface of cold objects), frozen dew (what it sounds like), glacier (a packed mass of snow and ice), graupel (snowflakes that are coated with ice), heavy snow (more than four inches of snow accumulation in twelve hours), ice pellets (just what they sound like), ice storm (precipitation that falls as rain but freezes on contact with the ground), lake effect snow (the enhanced snowfall that happens on the down wind side of a lake), polycrystalline snow (several snowflakes fused together), quality of snow (the percent by weight of a snow sample that is ice), sleet (snow that melts and refreezes on the way down), snow (duh), snow depth (how deep the frozen precipitation is on the ground), snow flurries (light snow showers), snow grains (very small, white, opaque grains of ice), snow pellets (large white, opaque grains of ice), snow shower (snow falling for brief periods), snow squalls (intense but short periods of moderate to heavy snowfall and strong, gusty winds), snowburst (a very intense shower of snow), snowfall (how much snow has fallen), snowflake (duh), water equivalent (how much water you’d get if you melted the snow), whiteout (blowing snow that reduces the visibility to zero), and winter storm (a heavy snowfall event). If you were keeping score, that’s thirty-three terms or more than twice the number that the Eskimos use!

Hoar on leaves and plants in Oklahoma (My camera)

Hoar on leaves and plants in Oklahoma
(My camera)

Of course, all of that terminology is useless without some data to back it up. And that’s where you come in! All you have to do is go outside when it snows, measure the depth of the snow, and tweet it to the University of Waterloo’s Snowtweets Project. For more details, drift on over to:

November 6 – What A Drip!

Today’s factismal: Not all drains lead to the ocean.

If you’ve looked at a storm drain cover lately (or watched Finding Nemo), then you’ve probably seen the warning on it: “This drain leads to the sea”. And, in 82% of the spots on land, that warning would be correct; those storm drains do lead to the ocean, eventually. They lead to creeks that drain into rivers that drain into other rivers that drain into the sea. But in about 18% of the cases, the creek leads to a river that leads to a lake that leads nowhere; it is an endorheic (“flows inside”) basin. When water and other stuff is dumped into that storm sewer, it flows downhill until it gets trapped in a lake. At the lake, the water evaporates away, leaving behind an increasingly salty (and, in some cases, polluted) body of water.

The Great Salt Lake is an endorheic watershed (My camera)

The Great Salt Lake is an endorheic watershed
(My camera)

This happens in the Dead Sea, the Caspian Sea, Laguna del Carbon, and the Great Salt Lake. These “terminal lakes” receive the water from everywhere within their drainage basin (also called a catchment or watershed), just as rivers in other watersheds eventually lead to the oceans. But in both cases, the quality of the water has a strong influence on what can live in the watershed. The abundance of fertilizers and silt provided to the Gulf of Mexico by the Mississippi River watershed creates an annual dead zone where fish cannot live; this then reduces the number of fish available for fishing and recreation. Similarly, the continuing shortage of water in the Colorado River has created hypersaline conditions in the Gulf of California that threaten the safety of gray, blue, and finback whales that spend the winter there.

This is not how you clean up a river (My camera)

This is not how you clean up a river
(My camera)

Though it may seem like the problem of cleaning up watersheds is too big to be tackled, the opposite is true. That’s because each big watershed is made up of smaller watersheds. The Gulf of Mexico gets water from the Mississippi River watershed, and the Mississippi River watershed gets water from the Arkansas River, Ohio River, and Missouri River water sheds. And the Ohio River watershed gets its water from the Allegheny and Monongahela River watersheds. And the Monongahela River watershed in turn gets its water from the Youghiogheny, Cheat, and Tygart River watersheds. And each of those watersheds can be further sub-divided into smaller rivers and creeks until you finally arrive at something small enough to clean up.

If you’d like to take part in cleaning up a watershed near you, then there’s no time like the present. Use one of the links below (or google for your own watershed) and get cleaning!

Great Swamp Watershed Association
Hudson River Estuary Program and Scenic Hudson
Kentucky River Watershed Watch
Klamath Riverkeeper
Loudoun Stream Monitoring
Master Watershed Steward program (Arizona)
Missouri Stream Team Program
OPAL Water Survey
RiverSweep (Ohio River)
Shermans Creek Watershed Monitoring Program
Watershed Watch
Willamette Riverkeeper Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring
Wisconsin Stream Monitoring
WV Save Our Streams Program
Yuba River Water Quality Monitoring

November 5 – Holy Guacamole!

Today’s factismal: The world’s largest single aperture telescope is in Puerto Rico.

Quick! What’s big enough to hold 10,000 gallons of guacamole, deep enough to put a submarine in, precise enough to see supernovae 44 million light years away, and turns fifty-one years old this week? It is the Arecibo National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (the Arecibo Observatory, or just Arecibo, for short).

The Arecibo "dish", big enough for a submarine to hide in (Image courtesy NAIC)

The Arecibo “dish”, big enough for a submarine to hide in
(Image courtesy NAIC)

Back in the late 1950s, scientists were just learning about the ionosphere and wanted to develop a tool that would allow them to probe its secrets. And other scientists were learning about radio emissions from planets and stars, and wanted a tool to learn about those. And when the first group of wonks met the second group of wonks, a new telescope was born.

The idea was simple: because the same energy (radio waves) that is used to probe the ionosphere is also used to learn more about distant planets and stars, instead of building two small instruments, why not build one huge one? They would get better resolution (thanks to the size of the reflecting dish), more power (thanks to the size of the transmitter/receiver), and more funding (thanks to the size of the project). And so they started looking for a place to build the world’s biggest (single aperture) telescope.

The remains of the very first supernova ever recorded (Image courtesy NASA)

The remains of the very first supernova ever recorded
(Image courtesy NASA)

They had quite a few requirements on the location. It had to be in the US (thanks to the Cold War). It had to be near the equator (so it could see the planets). It had to be in an area with eroded limestone features called karst (so that it would be easy to build). And the spot that best fit was a little place called Arecibo on the island of Puerto Rico. So that’s where they built it and, on November 1, 1963, they started getting signals.

An image of the Crab Nebula at radio frequencies (Image courtesy NASA)

An image of the Crab Nebula at radio frequencies (Image courtesy NASA)

And what amazing things they saw! At the end of six months, they had discovered that Mercury wasn’t tidally-locked to the Sun like the Moon is to Earth; instead, it had a funny 3:2 rotation so that the day on Mercury appears to take two years! Soon they proved the existence of neutron stars, and mapped asteroids, and found complex molecules in outer space. But they weren’t limited to discovering things; they could also help things discover us. On November 16, 1974, Carl Sagan and friends took over Arecibo and used it to send a message to the stars, letting ET know where to phone.

Jupiter at radio wavelengths (Image courtesy NASA)

Jupiter at radio wavelengths (Image courtesy NASA)

Arecibo continues its mission of discovery today. Though there are now larger telescopes made by linking several small telescopes together, it remains the largest single aperture telescope in the world and one of the most active telescopes, period. Twenty-four hours a day, 365.25 days a year, the astronomers at Arecibo are looking for the unusual, the beautiful, and the strange – all the normal facets of our wonderful universe. If you’d like to make a tour of that universe, then why not head over to WorldWide Telescope Ambassadors? They’ve got free web tools that allow you to create and share a trip through the most amazing parts of the sky:

November 4 – Wonderful Things

Today’s factismal: The tomb of the “boy king” Tutankhamen was discovered by accident in 1922.

Ask any scientist if they believe in luck and she’ll probably tell you “no” and then regale you with stories of discoveries that happened by chance. (The scientist isn’t being inconsistent; most discoveries are the result of decades of hard, painstaking work. The accidents are remembered because they are so rare.) Becquerel and radioactivity. Fleming and penicillin. Nobel and dynamite. And Carter and Tutankhamen.

A boat from an Egyptian tomb (My camera)

A boat from an Egyptian tomb
(My camera)

Howard Carter was already a famous Egyptologist when the accident happened. At the time of the accident, he had been looking for antiquities in Egypt for thirty-one years and had already discovered two important tombs (Thutmose I and Thutmose III). But he knew that there was more out there to be discovered and so, with the patronage of Lord Carnarvon, he had spent five fruitless years looking for an intact tomb. (Because they were filled with gold and other treasures, most tombs in the region had been broken into and plundered, making it very hard to understand how the Egyptians treated their dead.) However, his methodical searching and lack of results had begun to wear on the patience of his patron, who threatened to cut off funds at the end of the year.

The lid of a sarcophagus (My camera)

The lid of a sarcophagus
(My camera)

And that’s where chance smiled on Carter. On November 4, 1922, one of his workers stumbled on a stone while clearing out the dirt from yet another failed excavation. Carter looked at the stone and recognized it as a step. He and his workers eagerly cleared out the stairwell and twenty-two days later ceremoniously opened the tomb while his patron looked on and smiled. They had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, who we would later learn ruled Egypt from the time he was nine until his early death at 19. The tomb was in pristine condition, with so many artifacts that it took ten years to unearth them all. Today, “King Tut” is perhaps the best known of all Egypt’s rulers thanks in no small part to Carter’s lucky step.

A gilded coffin from within a sarcophagus (My camera)

A gilded coffin from within a sarcophagus
(My camera)

Right now, an effort even more titanic than Carter’s five year search for tombs is underway. Egyptologists are trying to decipher a treasure trove of papyri (ancient scrolls) that were unearthed in an Egyptian trash heap nearly a century ago. These 500,000 fragments need citizen scientists like you to help decipher their hidden messages. By playing a video game, you’ll help scholars transcribe and translate papyri that cover everything from the Bible to the comedies of Menander to bills and loan documents. To play the game, head over to the Ancient lives web site: